FRRC fights for ex-felon's voter rights

08/04/08 Concetta DeLuco
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Over the weekend, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a non-partisan group committed to reforming voting rights for ex-felons, held its statewide annual convention at Stetson University’s College of Law in Tampa. The group is campaigning to make the process for disenfranchised felons to obtain their rights more efficient and effective by pushing for an amendment on the statewide ballot that would automatically restore suffrage.

Florida has recently been one of only three states that have denied the right to vote to individuals with past felonies who have completed their sentences. And while some changes that would allow ex-felons the right to obtain their voting privileges have been made since Gov. Charlie Crist took office last year, many of the ex-offenders are still unaware that they can even apply for rights restoration and are often confused by the whole process.

Sherri Lockett, secretary of the National Black Police Association and a police officer in Miami Dade who spoke at the conference, said voting is not the only liberty these individuals lose. They are also denied other civil rights such as serving on jury or holding public office.

Ex-felons are also being denied eligibility for certain jobs, said Mark Schlakman, a senior program director at FSU in the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. In pursuit of public safety, Schlakman said, many agencies and separate entities are using rights restoration as a “safety net” to avoid hiring an individual they might deem incompetent based solely on their past felonies.

In wake of the failure of the passage of S2152, a re-entry bill that stated “no person could be denied eligibility of certain jobs based solely on rights restoration,” Schlakman discussed the implications.

The FRRC was formed in March 2003 by the Florida ACLU. It is a statewide union of 40 local, state and national organizations and while working toward permanent voter reform for ex-convicts, they are also dedicated to helping people in the process of applying for the restoration of their civil and voting rights.

Desmond Lead, a representative from formerly homeless forum and ex-convict who was imprisoned on multiple battery charges, said he is an “active member in society and is affected by the issues that involve his community, yet he is denied a political voice.”

Since the reform of certain clemency rules in April 2007, Crist has restored the civil rights of 115,000 ex-offenders.

Muslima Louis, director of the ACLU of Florida’s racial justice and voting rights project, agrees that 115,000 is a large number of people to have their rights restored, but with nearly 5 million Americans unable to vote due to past felony convictions, there is still a lot of work to be done. And for those who have regained their right to vote, Louis says they are often unaware of it and action needs to be taken to notify these new voters in time for the upcoming election in November.

There are many more opportunities for those ex-felons who have had their civil liberties restored.

In the future, the FRRC will continue to advocate for executive clemency rules that are truly automatic for everyone in the state of Florida.

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